The Good: Tone, Effects, Characters, Plot
The Bad: Occasionally dated dialogue
The Basics: A must see film of enduring greatness, The Empire Strikes Back is one of the rare sequels which exceeds the promise of the original film.
If you're actually reading this review, it begs the question, "Where have you been?" That is, how could you have not experienced one of the most culturally relevant films of our time by now? It seems silly to those who do not take the time to consider this film to say that it is one of the most culturally relevant pieces of our day, yet it truly is. More than most films in the last thirty years, The Empire Strikes Back has gone a long way to shaping and influencing individuals, artists, and moviemakers.
It's easy to lump The Empire Strikes Back into the science fiction category and write it off because it contains strange puppets and robots. That's a horrible mistake to make. The truth of the film is that it's a pretty grim view of humanity and the perversion of spirituality by a bloated military-industrial complex.
Better than A New Hope (click here for my review of that movie!) The Empire Strikes Back is the continuing story of the Rebellion against the Empire. The story focuses on the fledgling Luke Skywalker who is trying to learn about the power he just began to explore in A New Hope and the troublemaker Han Solo who is continually hunted for his crimes that precede his introduction in the series.
The story takes our intrepid heroes - if they are even that - from a frozen wasteland where the Rebellion suffers a crushing defeat and is on the verge of destruction. Forced to part ways following the Imperial blockade of Hoth and the annihilation of personnel and resources, Luke goes in search of a mentor who can teach him how to use the Force. Han and Princess Leia, on the other hand, simply flee. Pursued by Imperial forces into an asteroid belt, Han and Leia confront their feelings for one another and are astounded to find the Empire chasing them through the dangerous asteroid field. After a cunning move, the Millennium Falcon escapes to Bespin. While Han is on Cloud City, reunited with an old friend, Luke meets his mentor, a diminutive creature named Yoda, and begins to learn the Force. This manifests itself in an ability to see the future and the suffering of his friends, among other things. And it goes from there.
If you haven't seen this movie, what are you missing? You're missing a great story that is told using interesting characters and it's more than just a war story. This is the essential fight for freedom and those fighting for it are more faceted than idealized. That is to say, the characters have depths and flaws. Leia is still a snob, Han Solo is a selfish renegade who is desperate to save his own skin, and Luke, Luke is quite naive and that idealism leads to the ability of the enemy to crush his spirit in the last act.
The film is more than science fiction, it delves into what motivates people to resist authority and more than that it explores the consequences of that resistance. Far too many times there are good guys and bad guys. Here there are bad guys. Darth Vader spends much of the movie strangling high ranking Imperial officers, Boba Fett is vicious in his pursuit of Han. But the good guys, they suffer. They suffer from internal flaws and imperfections as well as the results of their attempts to fight the powers that be, in the form of the Empire.
The essential characters in The Empire Strikes Back include:
Luke Skywalker - an apprentice to a mystical order of Jedi, most of whom are long dead. Weak in his powers, he is encouraged by the spirit of his dead mentor to seek the only living Jedi left in the galaxy, a recluse named Yoda,
Princess Leia Organa - a politician and freedom fighter, she is on the run from the Empire and has taken up a leadership in the Rebel Alliance which seeks to restore democracy to the galaxy,
Han Solo - a smuggler and a rogue who has associated with the Rebels and is wanted by the criminal underworld that runs part of the galaxy. Han has begun to feel romantic attraction to Leia and he feels the bite of the class difference between them,
and Darth Vader - No longer under the thumb of Grand Moff Tarkin, Vader ascends to be the effective head of the Imperial military. Ordering the troops, Vader now controls the killing might of the Empire and he has turned his attentions to finding Luke Skywalker, for destroying the Death Star and because he believes the threat posed by the young warrior may undermine the Empire.
The Empire Strikes Back succeeds, in part, because of the strength of the cast. Harrison Ford, who plays Han Solo, and Carrie Fisher (Leia) have great on-screen chemistry. The addition of Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) establishes a new rogue element into the mix that adds more substance and reality to the film. And Anthony Daniels, who plays C-3P0, acts so well while encased in a metal costume that he is able to genuinely emote and get the viewer to care about his fate.
But it is Mark Hamill who does the heavy lifting in The Empire Strikes Back. He is forced to emote the most and his emotional journey while training on Dagobah is portrayed in such a way as to be interesting. Hamill makes watching a guy do a workout interesting using his facial expressions, emoting with his eyes and convincing the viewer of the strength of his convictions (and later of his love for his friends) with minimal lines.
And, more than anything, The Empire Strikes Back is fun and the end it a refreshing change from the ordinary! Not until Star Trek Deep Space Ninecomes along will there be such a dismal fate for the bulk of would-be heroes as those in The Empire Strikes Back. And this film is enjoyable to rewatch, for more than just grim fascination. This is where the Force has spirituality instead of the science of The Phantom Menace, this is where Han was a true rogue (as opposed to the poser he was converted into in the Special Edition of A New Hope where Greedo fires first) and the characters make sense, like Leia still being an aristocrat instead of a practical rebel.
Are there flaws? Not really. Sure, some of the dialog - especially between Han and Leia - has some camp value to it, but so did the 80s. And this is a film that transcends that and is a statement. One of the statements it makes is war is never easy or without consequences. One of the statements I'll make is you must see this film.
On DVD, The Empire Strikes Back comes loaded with a commentary track and a ton of featurettes on the making of the film. The latest DVD release also contains the original theatrical version, as well as the ultimate Special Edition of the film from the first DVD release.
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© 2001, 2008,2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.